When Details Matter

Last week I talked about how excessive detail can bury the purpose or meaning of a work, and also waste your and your audience’s time. But there’s a time and a place for heavy detail work, and becoming a better artist is learning to recognize when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. If you do it right, you awe people when they realize how much care you put into the project. There are also times when people will only notice on a subliminal level, praising work for its realism even when they can’t put their finger on exactly how it achieves it.

About not showing your homework when it comes to world building – people don’t appreciate a massive info dump in the middle of a narrative, but that doesn’t mean don’t do your homework at all. You can end up with a hundred thousand words of notes, especially if you’re working on a large series, that never make it into the story directly, but influence its outcome behind the scenes. The key to managing the amount of work you put into your “story bible,” verses how much actual narrative you get on the page, is learning to recognize when your bible mechanics matter.

For example, the reason I spent time jotting down alien anatomy is so I could make my characters noticeably strange and yet have them act in believable ways. One character doesn’t blink, because she has compound eyes. She also has a third eye at the back of her head. With nearly 360° vision, this affects how she interacts with people in a big way. To make such characters empathetic, I have to know all the ways their biology can embarrass them, particularly when they interact with humans. Counter-intuitively, knowing in what ways they’re inhuman is my way of humanizing them.

If you take the time to figure how horses work, people won’t make fun of you for treating them like cars. If you take the time to figure out how battles work, you won’t end up with a jumbled mess of action that doesn’t come together in the reader’s mind. There are all sorts of details you can’t get away with not knowing, which differ across genre, but in each one is something the reader has run across so many times that getting it wrong will make them call you out.

The same goes for animation. Certain conventions, those exaggerations I talked about last week, have become so subconsciously natural to the audience that not knowing them will make people think your animation sucks. This happened in the late 90s when 3D animation software became cheap enough for every studio to use. My 3D animation teacher showed a slo-mo clip from the first Spiderman movie that looked like ass because the animators didn’t make the character “bounce” enough when he landed on a rooftop. It was subtlety only an animator could pick out, but one that lodges itself in the uneducated audience’s mind as looking like a bunch of plastic action figures.

There are also details you can’t skimp on in 3D models themselves. You may have made a nice shiny hammer, but if you don’t dirty it up, it’ll look like it has never been used. The only time that’s appropriate is if you’re building a scene in a hardware store. However, if it’s for a video game, that shiny new hammer instantly becomes uncanny the moment the player picks it up and swings it around. Game developers favor grungy old settings because there’s no excuse for anything to look new, so they don’t have to build engines to make objects trade their textures for damaged-looking ones over time.

A problem arises when modders make a brand new model for a grungy game world and forget to detail it with stains and scratches and other marks of wear. They stick a pristine wardrobe in an old house, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. It doesn’t fit the game’s aesthetic for one, but it’s also because in real life you rarely see anything that new. Amateur modelers tend to be pathologically afraid of marring their beautiful textures. I’ve had a few balk when I bring up the idea, until I remind them that making a backup of their pristine texture is totally an option while mucking up a separate copy.

Details are also more appreciated in a 3D environment you can explore. If the scene is only going to be shown from one angle, you don’t need to fill in the areas behind the scenery or behind the camera. It’s basically a movie stage and, as stage painters learned, you only need to paint enough detail on the scenery for the audience to discern. If you add every nail on a painted barn, and no one can tell, you’re wasting your time.

An interactive 3D environment is different. You have to pay attention to detail anywhere the player can get into. Sure, you can brick up buildings so you don’t have to fill them all, but most players feel cheated every time they run into yet another empty, impenetrable husk. Tons of players like to wedge themselves into every crevasse they can find, because exploring is a huge part of why they’re playing the game. If you stick little Easter eggs for them to find, they love that. Enough to talk about them on the internet, especially in Cracked listicles. So here you have an art form where the audience is paying attention to all the little things you add.

As I mentioned in another post, scene details are an opportunity to tell more of your story. But in a game, you’re not just telling the story of all the people who walked through that world. You also have to think about the story your players are going to invent as they go along. You have to try to imagine all the things they can do in that environment and create things to draw them where you want them to go. You could cheap out by sticking them on a rail, but in a sandbox game that’s not appreciated. The more scenarios you imagine, even if it’s just, “What if the player jumps here?” the more open your game will feel, and that has a significant draw to a large enough player-base to make those details worth the time.

When I’m building such an environment, I’m always think things like, “What happens if the player peeks through this clump of trees? What should they find?” Or “Here’s a little area just enough out of the way for the player to really work to find it. That’s a great place to stick a treasure chest.” Of course, I also ask why details are missing from the original game, or every game. For example, where are the coopers? Every fantasy game I’ve ever played is filled with barrels, but there’s never any evidence of the people who make them. When I tell people I make completely mundane 3D clutter objects, and use them to fill completely mundane medieval workshops, I get far more praise for this lowly task than the kids who make shiny glowing crystal swords of awesomeness. Why? Because shiny glowing crystal swords of awesomeness are a dime a dozen. Whereas a rusty barrel hoop is so rare, despite barrels barrels everywhere, it might as well be the One Ring to Rule Them All.

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Sarah Dimento

The only thing interesting about me is my interest in interesting things – and sometimes I make cool shit.

2 thoughts to “When Details Matter”

  1. The kids and I STILL complain about a supposedly interactive game in the Myst line, with an AXE that we should have been able to pick up and take with us!

    To this day we believe that, if we had just found the right way, that axe would have been ours.

    1. And it’s those little things we always remember too. There’s one modder, since left the scene, who used to make me models before I learned how to do it myself, and he had a pack of tools including a proper woodcutter’s axe, of which none existed in the original game. Anyway, I was disappointed to find out he made them all statics, which means you can’t pick them up, so I took the time to convert the ones I’m using into proper items.

      I also spent the other day taking photos of a rawhide mallet (from my jewellery toolbox) and transposing them onto a 3D model of a rawhide mallet. I stuffed the mallet in my cooper’s toolkit, then I decided to go one step further and make the mallet a “blunt weapon” and give it to his apprentice, the hooper. It’s not good to leave NPCs completely undefended in an open-world RPG, but I prefer to use the tools they actually work with rather than giving them ridiculous battleaxes and warhammers.

      I have a silly rant brewing about how hilariously skewed the economy is in most fantasy games, where magical swords are so dime-a-dozen you can’t get rid of them fast enough, but there’s never enough staples like bread and eggs and cheese. You can’t RP having to actually eat without mods to fix that!

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